Neil Potter: Journalist dubbed 'the Oilman'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Neil Potter, doyen of the oil industry press corps, was one of the great journalistic survivors and remained at his keyboard till the very end. Although terrier-like at press conferences – Potter would not let oil company executives get away with anything – he was a personally unassuming man, who always remained polite, confident in the encyclopaedic knowledge acquired in his years in the business. To his colleagues he was "the Oilman".

There had been printers' ink in his veins even before oil. Neil's father, H.W. Potter, worked for the Daily Mail in Manchester for 30 years, including a stint as northern editor. After Manchester Grammar School, Neil – youngest of three brothers – cut his teeth in the Manchester offices of the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror before his career was interrupted by the Second World War.

Captured in Singapore as a 22-year-old signaller, he was among the Allied prisoners of war drafted as slave labour to work on the Burma-Siam railway. The railway completed, Potter was transferred to a mine in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, avoiding the fate of tens of thousands of PoWs who perished when the Americans – by now in control of the shipping lanes – torpedoed their transport ships.

After the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the camp commandant announced that Japan had surrendered and gave the prisoners the rest of the day off. As Potter told it, the PoWs were so exhausted and starving that it did not occur to them that "getting a day off" was in any way an inappropriate reward for winning the war, so they went quietly back to their huts. When it finally dawned that everything had changed, the PoWs tentatively suggested that the prisoners were now entitled to an equal share of what little food was available. This was agreed: both captors and captives were severely malnourished, and the final days of captivity were remarkably free of acrimony.

After repatriation, Potter rejoined the Mirror in Liverpool and later worked for the Liverpool Daily Post and Evening Echo. This was followed by 14 years on the Daily Telegraph in London, during which he reported from Sandringham on the death of King George VI, winning special praise from the then editor H. Cleveland Stevens. While at the Telegraph, Potter authored three authoritative books on the giant "Queen" ocean liners – The Mary (1961), The Elizabeth (1965) and Queen Elizabeth 2 (1969). After the Telegraph, he switched to television, working for seven years as a producer at Southern Television.

Next stop was two years of running publicity for the North of England Development Council, in Newcastle, before his final change of direction – in the pioneering days of the North Sea oil and gas industry – gave him the speciality that lasted nearly 40 years until his death. He worked for the magazine Petroleum Times and The Oilman newsletter, including stints as editor. In 1994, he joined the FT (now Platts) newsletter North Sea Letter, developing a brief far beyond his initial role as Norwegian correspondent. By the time of his death, he was celebrated as the undoubted elder statesman of the close-knit oil industry press pack.

Robert Chesshyre, Chris Cragg and Terry Knott

Neil Jeffery Haigh Potter, journalist and writer: born Flixton, Lancashire 7 October 1919; twice married (one son, one daughter); died London 12 January 2008.